A Moonshot for Obesity: New Molecules, Inspired by Space Shuttles, Advance Lipid Nanoparticle Delivery for Weight Control

by Ian Scheffler

Like space shuttles using booster rockets to breach the atmosphere, lipid nanoparticles (LNPs) equipped with the new molecule more successfully deliver medicinal payloads. (Love Employee via Getty Images)

Inspired by the design of space shuttles, Penn Engineering researchers have invented a new way to synthesize a key component of lipid nanoparticles (LNPs), the revolutionary delivery vehicle for mRNA treatments including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, simplifying the manufacture of LNPs while boosting their efficacy at delivering mRNA to cells for medicinal purposes.

In a paper in Nature Communications, Michael J. Mitchell, Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, describes a new way to synthesize ionizable lipidoids, key chemical components of LNPs that help protect and deliver medicinal payloads. For this paper, Mitchell and his co-authors tested delivery of an mRNA drug for treating obesity and gene-editing tools for treating genetic disease. 

Previous experiments have shown that lipidoids with branched tails perform better at delivering mRNA to cells, but the methods for creating these molecules are time- and cost-intensive. “We offer a novel construction strategy for rapid and cost-efficient synthesis of these lipidoids,” says Xuexiang Han, a postdoctoral student in the Mitchell Lab and the paper’s co-first author. 

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2023 Graduate Research Fellowships for Bioengineering Students

Congratulations to the fourteen Bioengineering students to receive 2023  National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. The recipients honorees were selected from a highly-competitive, nationwide pool. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website.

Carlos Armando Aguila, Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member of the Center of Neuroengineering and Therapeutics, advised by Erin Conrad, Assistant Professor in Neurology, and Brian Litt, Professor in Bioengineering and Neurology. His research focuses on analyzing electroencephalogram (EEG) signals to better understand epilepsy.

Joseph Lance Victoria Casila is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering in the lab of Riccardo Gottardi, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics and Bioengineering. His research focuses on probing environmental factors that influence stem cell differentiation towards chondrogenesis for cartilage engineering and regeneration.

Trevor Chan is a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering in the lab of Felix Wehrli, Professor of Radiologic Science. His research is in developing computational methods for medical image refinement and analysis. Two ongoing projects are: self-supervised methods for CT super-resolution and assessment of osteoporosis, and semi-supervised segmentation of 3D and 4D echocardiograms for surgical correction of congenital heart-valve defects.

Rakan El-Mayta is an incoming Ph.D. student in the lab of Drew Weissman, Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research. Rakan studies messenger RNA-lipid nanoparticle vaccines for the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases. Prior to starting in the Bioengineering graduate program, he worked as a Research Assistant in Weissman lab and in the lab of Michael Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering.

Austin Jenk is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering. Austin aims to develop early intervention, intra-articular therapeutics to combat the onset of post-traumatic osteoarthritis following acute joint injuries. His work focuses on developing a therapeutic that can be employed not only in conventional healthcare settings, but also emergency and battlefield medicine.

Jiageng Liu is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Alex Hughes, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering. His work aims to precisely control the bio-physical/chemical properties of iPSC-derived organoids with advanced synthetic biology approaches to create functional replacement renal tissues.

Alexandra Neeser is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Leyuan Ma, Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. Her research focuses on solid tumor microenvironment delivery of therapeutics.


William Karl Selboe Ojemann, a Ph.D. Student in Bioengineering, is a member of the Center for Neuroengineering and Therapeutics directed by Brian Litt, Professor in Bioengineering and Neurology. His research is focused on developing improved neurostimulation therapies for epilepsy and other neurological disorders.

Savan Patel (BSE Class of 2023) conducted research in the lab of Michael Mitchell, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, where he worked to develop lipid nanoparticle formulations for immunotherapy and extrahepatic delivery of mRNA. He will be joining the Harvard-MIT HST MEMP Ph.D. program in the fall of 2023.

David E. Reynolds, a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member of the lab of Jina Ko, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. His research focuses on developing novel and translatable technologies to address currently intractable diagnostic challenges for precision medicine.

Andre Roots is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Christopher Madl, Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. His research focuses on the use of protein engineering techniques and an optimized 3D human skeletal muscle microtissue platform to study the effects of biophysical material properties on cells.

Emily Sharp, a second year Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member of the lab of Robert Mauck, Mary Black Ralston Professor in Orthopaedic Surgery and Bioengineering, part of the McKay Orthopaedic Research Laboratories. Her research focuses on designing multi-functional biomaterials to enhance tissue repair, specifically intervertebral disc repair following herniation and discectomy.

Nat Thurlow is a Ph.D. student in the lab of Louis J. Soslowsky, Fairhill Professor in Orthopedic Surgery and Bioengineering. Their current work focuses on delineating the roles of collagens V and XI in tendon mechanics, fibril structure, and gene expression during tendon development and healing.

Maggie Wagner, Ph.D. student in Bioengineering, is a member in the labs of Josh Baxter, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, and Flavia Vitale, Assistant Professor in Neurology and Bioengineering. Her research focuses on the development of novel sensors to record and monitor muscle neuromechanics.

Understanding the Physics of Kidney Development

Abstract image of tubules repelling each other and shifting around.
The model of tubule packing developed by the Hughes Lab shows the tubules repelling each other and shifting around.

A recent study by Penn Bioengineering researchers sheds new light on the role of physics in kidney development. The kidney uses structures called nephrons and tubules to filter blood and pass urine to the bladder. Nephron number is set at birth and can vary over an order of magnitude (anywhere from 100,000 to over a million nephrons in an individual kidney). While the reasons for this variability remain unclear, low numbers of nephrons predispose patients to hypertension and chronic kidney disease. 

Now, research published in Developmental Cell led by Alex J. Hughes, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioengineering, demonstrates a new physics-driven approach to better visualize and understand how a healthy kidney develops to avoid organizational defects that would impair its function. While previous efforts have typically approached this problem using molecular genetics and mouse models, the Hughes Lab’s physics-based approach could link particular types of defects to this genetic information and possibly highlight new treatments to prevent or fix congenital defects.

During embryonic development, kidney tubules grow and the tips divide to make a branched tree with clusters of nephron stem cells surrounding each branch tip. In order to build more nephrons, the tree needs to grow more branches. To keep the branches from overlapping, the kidney’s surface grows more crowded as the number of branches increase. “At this point, it’s like adding more people to a crowded elevator,” says Louis Prahl, first author of the paper and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Hughes Lab. “The branches need to keep rearranging to accommodate more until organ growth stops.”

To understand this process, Hughes, Prahl and their team investigated branch organization in mouse kidneys as well as using computer models and a 3D printed model of tubules. Their results show that tubules have to actively restructure – essentially divide at narrower angles – to accommodate more tubules. Computer simulations also identified ‘defective’ packing, in which the simulation parameters caused tubules to either overlap or be forced beneath the kidney surface. The team’s experimentation and analysis of published studies of genetic mouse models of kidney disease confirmed that these defects do occur.

This study represents a unique synthesis of different fields to understand congenital kidney disease. Mathematicians have studied geometric packing problems for decades in other contexts, but the structural features of the kidney present new applications for these models. Previous models of kidney branching have approached these problems from the perspective of individual branches or using purely geometric models that don’t account for tissue mechanics. By contrast, The Hughes Lab’s computer model demonstrates the physics of how tubule families interact with each other, allowing them to identify ‘phases’ of kidney organization that either relate to normal kidney development or organizational defects. Their 3D printed model of tubules shows that these effects can occur even when one sets the biology aside.

Hughes has been widely recognized for his research in the understanding of kidney development. This new publication is the first fruit of his 2021 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and he was recently named a 2023 Rising Star by the Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering (CMBE) Special Interest Group. In 2020 he became the first Penn Engineering faculty member to receive the Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for his forward-thinking work in the creation of new tools for tissue engineering.

Pediatric nephrologists have long worked to understand the cause of these childhood kidney defects. These efforts are often confounded by a lack of evidence for a single causative mutation. The Hughes Lab’s approach presents a new and different application of the packing problem and could help answer some of these unsolved questions and open doors to prevention of these diseases. Following this study, Hughes and his lab members will continue to explore the physics of kidney tubule packing, looking for interesting connections between packing organization, mechanical stresses between neighboring tubule tips, and nephron formation while attempting to copy these principles to build stem cell derived tissues to replace damaged or diseased kidney tissue. Mechanical forces play an important role in developmental biology and there is much scope for Hughes, Prahl and their colleagues to learn about these properties in relation to the kidney.

Read The developing murine kidney actively negotiates geometric packing conflicts to avoid defects” in Developmental Cell.

Other authors include Bioengineering Ph.D. students and Hughes Lab members John Viola and Jiageng Liu.

This work was supported by NSF CAREER 2047271, NIH MIRA R35GM133380, Predoctoral Training Program in Developmental Biology T32HD083185, and NIH F32 fellowship DK126385.

2022 Career Award Recipient: Michael Mitchell

by Melissa Pappas

Michael Mitchell (Illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Michael Mitchell, J. Peter and Geri Skirkanich Assistant Professor of Innovation in the Department of Bioengineering, is one of this year’s recipients of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. The award is given to early-career faculty researchers who demonstrate the potential to be role models in their field and invest in the outreach and education of their work.

Mitchell’s award will fund research on techniques for “immunoengineering” macrophages. By providing new instructions to these cells via nanoparticles laden with mRNA and DNA sequences, the immune system could be trained to target and eliminate solid tumors. The award will also support graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in his lab over the next five years.

The project aligns with Mitchell’s larger research goals and the current explosion of interest in therapies that use mRNA, thanks to the technological breakthroughs that enabled the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

“The development of the COVID vaccine using mRNA has opened doors for other cell therapies,” says Mitchell. “The high-priority area of research that we are focusing on is oncological therapies, and there are multiple applications for mRNA engineering in the fight against cancer.”

A new wave of remarkably effective cancer treatments incorporates chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy. There, a patient’s T-cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infections, are genetically engineered to identify, target and kill individual cancer cells that accumulate in the circulatory system.

However, despite CART-T therapy’s success in treating certain blood cancers, the approach is not effective against cancers that form solid tumors. Because T-cells are not able to penetrate tumors’ fibrous barriers, Mitchell and his colleagues have turned to another part of the immune system for help.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Training the Next Generation of Scientists on Soft Materials, Machine Learning and Science Policy

by Melissa Pappas

Developing new soft materials requires new data-driven research techniques, such as autonomous experimentation. Data regarding nanometer-scale material structure, taken by X-ray measurements at a synchrotron, can be fed into an algorithm that identifies the most relevant features, represented here as red dots. The algorithm then determines the optimum conditions for the next set of measurements and directs their execution without human intervention. Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Kevin Yager, who helped develop this technique, will co-teach a course on it as part of a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.

The National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship Program aims to support graduate students, educate the STEM leaders of tomorrow and strengthen the national research infrastructure. The program’s latest series of grants are going toward university programs focused on artificial intelligence and quantum information science and engineering – two areas of high priority in academia, industry and government.

Chinedum Osuji, Eduardo D. Glandt Presidential Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (CBE), has received one of these grants to apply data science and machine learning to the field of soft materials. The grant will provide five years of support and a total of $3 million for a new Penn project on Data Driven Soft Materials Research.

Osuji will work with co-PIs Russell Composto, Professor and Howell Family Faculty Fellow in Materials Science and Engineering, Bioengineering, and in CBE, Zahra Fakhraai, Associate Professor of Chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) with a secondary appointment in CBE, Paris Perdikaris, Assistant Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and Andrea Liu, Hepburn Professor of Physics and Astronomy in SAS, all of whom will help run the program and provide the connections between the multiple fields of study where its students will train.

These and other affiliated faculty members will work closely with co-PI Kristin Field, who will serve as Program Coordinator and Director of Education.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2022 CAREER Award Recipient: Lukasz Bugaj

by Melissa Pappas

Lukasz Bugaj (illustration by Melissa Pappas)

Therapies that use engineered cells to treat diseases, infections and chronic illnesses are opening doors to solutions for longstanding medical challenges. Lukasz Bugaj, Assistant Professor in Bioengineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for research that may be key to opening some of those doors.

Such cellular therapies take advantage of the complex molecular mechanisms that cells naturally use to interact with one another, enabling them to be more precise and less toxic than traditional pharmaceutical drugs, which are based on simpler small molecules. Cellular therapies that use engineered immune system cells, for example, have recently been shown to be highly successful in treating certain cancers and protecting against viral infections.

However, there is still a need to further fine-tune the behavior of cells in these targeted therapies. Bugaj and colleagues are addressing that need by developing new ways to communicate with engineered cells once they are in the body, such as turning molecular events on and off at specific times.

The research team recently discovered that both temperature and light can act as triggers of a specific fungal protein, dynamically controlling its location within a mammalian cell. By using light or temperature to instruct that protein to migrate toward or away from the cell’s membrane, Bugaj and his colleagues showed how it could serve as a key component in controlling the behavior of human cells.

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

2022 Graduate Research Fellowships for Bioengineering Students

Congratulations to the two Bioengineering students to receive 2022 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) fellowships. The prestigious NSF GRFP program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported fields. The eighteen Penn 2022 honorees were selected from a highly-competitive pool of over 12,000 applications nationwide. Further information about the program can be found on the NSF website.

 Gianna Therese Busch, PhD student, Bioengineering
Gianna is a member of the systems biology lab of Arjun Raj, Professor in Bioengineering and Genetics. Her research focuses on single-cell differences in cancer metabolism and drug resistance.




Shawn Kang, BSE/MSE, Bioengineering (’22)
Shawn conducted research in the BIOLines Lab of Dan Huh, Associate Professor in Bioengineering, where he worked to develop more physiologically relevant models of human health and disease by combining organs-on-a-chip and organoid technology.




The following Bioengineering students also received Honorable Mentions:
Michael Steven DiStefano, PhD student
Rohan Dipak Patel, PhD student
Abraham Joseph Waldman, PhD student

Read the full list of NSF GRFP Honorees on the Grad Center at Penn website.

NSF Grant Will Support Research into Sustainable Manufacturing of 3D Solid-state Sodium-ion Batteries and Battery Workforce Training

by Melissa Pappas

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering’s Eric Detsi will lead a team of researchers, including MSE’s Eric Stach and Russell Composto, to develop more eco-friendly batteries that are based on sodium, rather than lithium.

Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are becoming more ubiquitous, thanks to their use in emerging applications such as battery electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage, however, these batteries are inefficiently manufactured and unsustainably sourced.

The typical battery cell consists of a separator membrane filled with liquid electrolyte, sandwiched between the negative anode and positive cathode. This design has several drawbacks, including a complex and energy-intensive manufacturing process, inefficient recycling, and increased safety risks as the liquid electrolyte is flammable and crystallization between the electrodes can lead to explosions. Finally, there are substantial geopolitical and environmental risks associated with the global supply chain for lithium-ion battery materials, such as cobalt and lithium.

The solid-state battery design addresses these issues. In solid-state batteries, the flammable liquid electrolyte is replaced by a solid electrolyte, making them safer and more energy efficient. Sodium-ion batteries address the issue of sustainable material sourcing as sodium is more abundant than lithium and cobalt, the materials used in lithium-ion batteries. Both solid-state lithium-ion batteries and sodium-ion batteries are very attractive for battery electric vehicles and grid-scale energy storage applications.

However, current solid-state battery designs also suffer from two major drawbacks: a low capacity for power storage and a resistance to charge transfer.

 To tackle the unsustainability in battery materials and the inefficiency of the current solid-state design, the National Science Foundation has awarded a team of Penn Engineers $2.7 Million in funding through its Future Manufacturing program. The team will be led by Eric Detsi, Stephenson Term Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), and will include Eric Stach, Professor in MSE and Director of the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter, and Russell Composto, Howell Family Faculty Fellow and Professor in MSE with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“Our team will investigate a novel ‘Eco Manufacturing’ route to a 3D solid-state sodium-ion battery based on polymer solid-electrolytes,” says Detsi. “Our Eco Manufacturing approach will enable us to create batteries from only abundant elements, achieve ultralong battery cycle life, prevent sodium-dendrite-induced short-circuiting by using a ‘self-healing’ metal anode that can transform into liquid when the battery is operating, and efficiently recycle the battery’s anode and cathode. We will also improve the manufacturing process by using time- and energy-efficient processes including direct ink writing, solid-state conversion, and infiltration.”

Read the full story in Penn Engineering Today.

Penn Takes Part in National Science Foundation’s First I-Corps Hubs

by Evan Lerner

A decade ago, the National Science Foundation started its Innovation Corps program to help translate academic research into the wider world. Functioning as a national start-up accelerator, I-Corps provides training and funding to researchers who have a vision for applying their ideas, starting businesses and maximizing social impact. 

Several successful start-ups launched by Penn Engineering students, including Strella BiotechnologyInventXYZ, and Percepta AI have participated in the I-Corps program.

Now, to further develop innovation ecosystems and share regional resources, the NSF has launched a network of five I-Corps Hubs.

Penn is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Hub, which will be led by the University of Maryland at College Park, and include Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Howard University, Johns Hopkins University, North Carolina State University, Penn State, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Virginia Tech.

The Penn Center for Innovation is currently accepting applications to join the next I-Corps cohort, which begins in October 2021. Teams will receive up to $2,000 to support their start-up, and can apply online.

This story originally appeared in Penn Engineering Today.

N.B.:  Founded by Penn alumna Katherine Sizov (Bio 2019) and winner of a 2019 President’s Innovation Prize, Strella Biotech seeks to reduce food waste through innovative biosensors, and was initially developed in the George H. Stephenson Foundation Educational Laboratory, the bio-makerspace and primary teaching lab of the Department of Bioengineering. Read more BE blog stories featuring Strella Biotechnology.

New Grant Aims to Broaden Participation in Cutting-Edge Materials Research

University of Puerto Rico’s Edgardo Sánchez (left) and Penn graduate Zhiwei Liao working in the lab of Daeyeon Lee. Via the Advancing Device Innovation through Inclusive Research and Education program, researchers from Penn and the University of Puerto Rico will continue their materials science collaboration while supporting STEM career pathways for underrepresented groups. (Image credit: Felice Macera).

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded grants to eight research teams to support partnerships that will increase diversity in cutting-edge materials research, education, and career development. One of those teams is Penn’s Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter (LRSM) and the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), whose long-running collaboration has now received an additional six years of support.

With the goal of supporting partnerships between minority-serving educational institutions and leading materials science research centers, NSF’s Partnership for Research & Education in Materials (PREM) program funds innovative research programs and provides institutional support to increase recruitment, retention, and graduation by underrepresented groups as well as providing underserved communities access to materials research and education.

‘Research at the frontier’

With this PREM award, known as the Advancing Device Innovation through Inclusive Research and Education (ADIIR) program, researchers from Penn and UPR’s Humacao and Cayey campuses will conduct research on the properties of novel carbon-based materials with unique properties, and will study the effects of surface modification in new classes of sensors, detectors, and purification devices.

Thanks to this collaboration of more than 20 years, both institutions have made significant scientific and educational progress aided by biannual symposia and regular pre-pandemic travel between both institutions before the pandemic, resulting in a rich portfolio of publications, conference presentations, patents, students trained, and outreach programs.

“Together we have been publishing good papers that have impact, and we’ve really cultivated a culture of collaboration and friendship between our institutions,” says Penn’s Arjun Yodh, former director of the LRSM. “Our goal is to carry out research at the frontier and, in the process, nurture promising students from Puerto Rico and Penn.”

Ivan Dmochowski, a chemistry professor at Penn who has been involved with PREM for several years, says that this program has helped his group connect with experts in Puerto Rico whose skills complement his group’s interests in protein engineering. Dmochowski has also hosted UPR faculty members and students in his lab and also travelled to Puerto Rico before the pandemic to participate in research symposia, seminars, and outreach events.

“I’ve had students who have benefitted from being a co-author on a paper or having a chance to mentor students, and the faculty we’ve interacted with are exceptional,” Dmochowski says. “There’s a lot of benefit for both me and my students, and I’ve enjoyed our interactions both personally and scientifically.”

Penn’s Daeyeon Lee, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor who has been involved with PREM for several years, regularly hosts students and faculty from UPR while working on nanocarbon-based composite films for sensor applications. The success of this collaboration relies on unique materials made by researchers at UPR combined with a method for processing them into composite structures developed in Lee’s lab.

“What I really admire about people at PREM, both faculty and students, is their passion,” says Lee. “I think that’s had a really positive impact on my students and postdocs who got to interact with them because they got to see the passion that the students brought.”

Read the full story in Penn Today.

Daeyeon Lee is a professor and the Evan C Thompson Term Chair for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Arjun Yodh is the James M. Skinner Professor of Science in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences and a member of the Bioengineering Graduate Group in Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.